'Groundhog Day' number four

2011-12-02 00:00

AFTER four days covering the UN Climate Change Conference known as COP17 down in Durban I now know what it’s like to be a hamster on a treadmill. Or Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, endlessly repeating the same 24 hours. Here I’m stuck on a wheel of briefings, interviews and press conferences.

The first thing you do when you get into the International Convention Centre where the conference is taking place is grab a “Daily Programme” from the documents counter. This lists the agenda for those doing the negotiating behind closed doors (although plenary sessions — some of them — can be followed via the webcasts on the UNFCCC website) plus the press conferences that happen on the half-hour throughout the day.

Programme secured, it’s time for a kickstart coffee at the Baobab Café — allegedly open 24/7, although I have yet to check that out. I’m told it’s a distinct possibility I will on the last night of the conference which the UN press kit dubs “Sleepless in Durban”.

But I’m getting ahead of things. The day really begins when I park my car in the media car park near Moses Mabhida Stadium and catch the media shuttle that drops you off just outside the ICC. White concrete blocks and plastic yellow ones block off the streets like giant Lego, funnelling delegates towards the entrance where the UN security officers, guns on hips, scrutinise your bar-coded badge. They are also trained to keep an eye out for any strange body language that will identify you as an international terrorist. Then it’s security. Same as the airports: removing laptops from bags and your shoes if they beep going through the stand-up scanners.

I forgot the greetings. Everyone — from the green-clad “helpers” to the shuttle drivers — greets you effusively, seemingly on the expectation that you are a foreigner and need welcoming to the “beautiful city of Durban”. “It’s not a beautiful city, it’s a seaside resort,” I mutter. They are usually rather disappointed on discovering you are a local.

Daily programme perused, you check into the “Writing Press” area where you can utilise one of the banks of computers or plug in your laptop along with the scores of other journalists here.

Then it’s a case of I’ll show you my technology if you show me yours. Is it my imagination or do people move away from me when I pull out my eight-year-old flip-open cellphone? Mind you, it’s not just the press who flash their hi-tech accessories: everyone here seems to be a walking broadcast unit. One has got used to seeing surgically attached cellphones but here at the ICC it’s surgically attached laptops, tablets, iPods, iPads or various other up-to-the-minute IT items nobody has got around to finding an acronym for yet.

Talking of acronyms, today’s programme provides YOUNGOs, BINGOs, IPOs, TUNGOs and RINGOs. They are all having closed meetings. RINGO is in the Apies River, while BINGO is in the Orange River. The names of the conference venues have been South Africanised with local place names. This morning I heard a delegate, speaking in a strangled Swedish-English and begging for subtitles, ask a security guard the way to the Levubu River. At least I think that’s what he meant.

The NGO press conferences, from Oxfam to Greenpeace, take place in the Kosi Palm, while the delegation briefings take place in the Yellowwood Room. Artur Runz-Metzger and Tomasz Chruszcow, from the EU, are urbane and affable. but the U.S. delegation leader Jonathan Pershing proves to be aptly named. A pre-set missile certain of his target, he speaks in perfect prose, complete with dramatic pauses and inflections, that could go straight to print. He doesn’t do affable and he’s got down to a fine art talking about China without ever naming the country. The South Africans so far tend to end every speech with the conference tag line Saving Tomorrow Today. Either that or they quote Nelson Mandela. Mind you, every delegate does that. “It always seems impossible, until it is done,” is especially popular.

Time for the first press conference. Or at least the first one my analysis of the day judges as worth attending. Maybe you will read about it tomorrow. In the meantime, you are reading this on Friday, December 2. Groundhog Day Number 5 at COP17. Eight more to go.

• feature1@witness.co.za

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